The drive to self-improvement is one of the defining aspects of
our culture. We are willing to go to great lengths to match our ideals; and if
you're not an Adonis or Venus, a mental equal to Einstein, or the spiritual
equivalent of a saint, you may have felt a twinge of shame and pressure to whip
yourself into shape.
So it's no surprise that as soon as medical science develops a
treatment for a disease, we often ask if it couldn't perhaps make a healthy
person even healthier. Take Viagra, for example: developed to help men who
couldn't get erections, it's now used by many who function perfectly well
without a pill but who hope it will make them exceptionally virile.
Once it was simple. You got married, had kids, worked the land, and stayed
married whether you could stand each other or not. The concept of "a happy
marriage" was no more
relevant than the idea of "a pretty tractor."
"That has changed over time as marriage has become more
independent," says Steven Nock, a professor of sociology who studies
marriage at the University of Virginia and author of Marriage in Men's
Lives. "Couples don't need each other for quite as many things as they
The same thing is happening with psychopharmaceuticals -- drugs
that work on the mind. Ritalin, the first drug to treat attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, has been widely used by normal students hoping to be
extra sharp while taking SATs or cramming for college exams.
Several new medications are on the market and in development
for Alzheimer's disease, a progressive neurological disease
leading to memory loss, language deterioration, and confusion that afflicts
about 4.5 million Americans and is expected to strike millions more as the baby
boom generation ages. Yet the burning question for those who aren't staring
directly into the face of Alzheimer's is whether these medications might make
'Flogging Your Nerves'
Memory loss, as well as dementia, is a key feature of Alzheimer's disease. If
medications to treat Alzheimer's can improve memory, why shouldn't they help
healthy people, too?
In theory, it's possible, says Marvin Hausman, MD, CEO of
Axonyx Inc., a company whose Alzheimer's drug Phenserine is undergoing clinical
trials in Europe. Phenserine is not available in the U.S.
Phenserine, as well as the drugs Aricept and Exelon, which are
already on the market, work by increasing the level of acetylcholine, a
neurotransmitter that is deficient in people with the disease. A
neurotransmitter is a chemical that allows communication between nerve cells in
the brain. In people with Alzheimer's disease, many brain cells have died, so
the hope is to get the most out of those that remain by flooding the brain with
"If you start flogging your nerves in an indiscriminate
fashion, you're going to increase both short-term and long-term memory,"
Yet there is no proof that an Alzheimer's drug could improve
brain function in healthy people, although the results of one tantalizing study
conducted by Stanford University researchers showed that a small group of
middle-aged pilots given Aricept did better on flight simulation tests compared
with those given a placebo.
Hausman hastens to add that his company has no interest in
developing Phenserine as a "smart drug," for use in normal people.
"I don't know if the FDA would ever allow a normal memory drug," he